addiction and mental health connection

The Correlation Between Addiction and Mental Health

Substance use and mental health disorders have a lot in common. They are both disorders of the brain that can become chronic the longer they go untreated. They can also interfere with daily functioning, preventing you from meeting obligations personally, professionally, and socially.

When a person has both a substance use disorder and mental illness, they have a co-occurring disorder.

The question of “which comes first, the addiction or the mental health disorder?” has been asked for many years. To date, there is no definitive answer since each person with a co-occurring disorder has a different set of circumstances. Some people start using drugs or alcohol to cope with mental health symptoms. Others begin to notice mental health symptoms after misusing substances.

Also, out of the 9.2 million Americans diagnosed with addiction and mental health disorders, every person has a different set of risk factors that play a role in developing a co-occurring condition.

Risk Factors Correlating Addiction and Mental Health

Risk factors are events or situations you experience throughout your life that influence substance use and mental health. They put you at a higher risk for using drugs or alcohol and for having a mental illness.

For example, if your family has a history of addiction, you are at risk because genes linked to addiction and mental health can be inherited. If you live in an unhealthy environment, you are at risk. Unhealthy environments are those filled with yelling, fighting, drinking, using drugs, illegal behaviors, or that encourage you to be unhealthy in any way.

Additional risk factors include the age at when a person first uses drugs or alcohol. The younger the age, the more likely a co-occurring disorder will develop. Being prescribed brain-altering medicines that may become addictive, like opioids for pain or stimulants for attention deficits, puts you at risk. Peer influence, toxic relationships, and previous trauma are more examples.

In the end, it’s the brain that plays the most significant role in both addiction and mental health.

Addiction, Mental Health, and the Brain

Addiction occurs quickly because it enters the brain when you consume a drug or alcohol, signaling a release of “feel good” chemicals like dopamine neurotransmitters. Dopamine is released at levels many times higher than what the brain can produce naturally. Dopamine floods the brain’s reward center, making you feel more relaxed and more euphoric than ever before.

Mental health is directly connected to neurotransmitters in the brain like dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and more. When the levels of neurotransmitters are low, mental health symptoms will appear. Low serotonin, for example, contributes to conditions like depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and many others.

It’s easy to see why someone would start using drugs or alcohol to boost the brain’s chemicals to feel better. Only, as the substances leave your system, adverse mental health symptoms return and are much stronger than before.

Not everyone with addiction started with a mental illness. The damage drugs and alcohol due to the neurotransmitters in the brain leads to imbalances in neurotransmitters, creating depression, anxiety, and many more.

Common Co-occurring Disorders

According to Mental Health America, one in three persons with depression also struggles with addiction. Alcohol, benzodiazepines, and opioids are categorized as sedating drugs that will exacerbate symptoms of depression.

Anxiety and substance use disorders are the highest co-occurring group. Researchers found that of those with an addiction, 18% also had an anxiety disorder. They also found opioids, sedatives, and tranquilizers were the most common drugs used among those with anxiety.

The National Eating Disorders Association claims 50% of people with an eating disorder abuse substances. The most common are alcohol, amphetamines, heroin, and cocaine.

Approximately 2.5% of the population in America has bipolar disorder. Of that number, 42% also use alcohol, and 20% are said to misuse cannabis. Substance use leads to earlier onset, rapid cycling, and more severe symptoms.

Other common co-occurring disorders can include any combination of the most commonly abused drugs and the most frequently diagnosed psychiatric conditions. Most common addictions involve alcohol, heroin, cocaine, prescription medicines, marijuana, and hallucinogens.

The most common mental illnesses are depression, anxiety, panic, suicide, bipolar, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and borderline.

Signs of a Correlation Between Addiction and Mental Health

Someone with an addiction will exhibit signs, and so will someone with a mental illness. It’s essential to know the signs of both, which are listed below:

  • Euphoria
  • Depression
  • Decreased appetite
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Sudden mood swings
  • Low performance at work, school, or home
  • Social isolation
  • Hallucinations
  • Anger outbursts
  • Suicidal ideation or attempts
  • Social isolation

Treatment for Co-occurring Disorders

Treatment options vary and are individualized based on the specific mental illness and substance of abuse. Many people abuse more than one substance, having a polydrug use disorder, while some have more than one mental illness.

These factors and your biological, physical, family, and psychological histories will be used to create a personal treatment plan. Depending on the severity of symptoms, treatment may begin at a detox hospital where you can receive medication management to alleviate withdrawal and mental health symptoms.

Once detoxed, you may transition to a residential program and then to programs like intensive outpatient or partial hospitalization. At each level of treatment, you can learn early recovery and relapse prevention skills through individual and group activities.

Other traditional services include family therapy, trauma-focused treatments, neurofeedback, cognitive-behavioral, and dialectical behavioral therapies. When searching for the right treatment facility, seek one that combines traditional therapies with alternative healing methods.

Learning to practice mindfulness in recovery will teach you to be present and aware of your body’s needs. And you will learn how to meet your body’s needs in healthy ways. Alternative treatments may also include equine therapy, art therapy, fitness and nutrition, yoga, and meditation.

If you are struggling with addiction and mental health disorders, you are not alone. Reach out today for help and join numerous others reaching their recovery goals. You can do it, and you deserve it.